To understanding “destroy” and “fulfill.”
“Do not think that I came to abolish the Torah and the Prophets! I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
Matthew 5:17 TLV
My previous theologically focused blog considered the “Mt. Marcy” of the Sermon on the Mount – the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule (Matt. 7:12) is an ethical reduction of all that had been taught in the Sermon to that point to help Yeshua/Jesus’ audience, past and present, apply His words in daily life. As noted, without the attachment of, “For this is the Law and the Prophets,” the Golden Rule would lack theological foundation, leaving the ethical actor uninformed as to the godly action in his immediate situation.
Still, if we read the Sermon carefully, we note that Messiah frames His entire discourse between two statements referencing the Law and the Prophets – Matthew 5:17 and Matthew 7:12, respectively. For what purpose? Let’s trek through to the answer.
When we approach Matthew 5:17 in its context, it seems out of place; after all, the preceding verses have discussed brokenness, mourning, meekness, being merciful, pure in heart, etc. … So why does Yeshua make this statement at this point?
Those listening heard something that our modern ears miss. With all that Yeshua has described, culminating in the doing of good works, one might have concluded that Yeshua was setting aside the Law and the Prophets. As what He has described since the opening of Matthew Chapter 5, does not necessitate Law or prophetic verse. Yet, Yeshua knowing the hearts and minds of men states clearly: don’t think that, as I have no intention of setting the Law and the Prophets aside, but to bring you to their fulfillment.
The common conclusion today in the church is that the Law, Torah, has been set aside. Nevertheless, what Yeshua is saying does not lead us to receive that theological position with confidence. Followers of Messiah, whether Jew or Gentile, are not to be antinomian; rather, they are to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, not a righteousness of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20; cf. Matt. 6:33), in right application (I Cor. 7:17-20).
The most striking aspect of Matthew 5:17-20 is that rather than expunging the Torah from the minds of His followers, Yeshua is expecting fulfillment. This statement I make with some exceptions, and readily acknowledge that it can be easily misconstrued. Consider the remarks of reformed theologian John Frame, “In one sense, no law of God is ever set aside or abrogated (Matt. 5:17-20). But there are some laws that, because of events in redemptive history, we come to observe, in our new covenant age, in very different ways from what God asked of the old testament Israelites. The commands to worship God by sacrifice, for example, continue to be normative, but we now worship by sacrifice of Christ.”
The Laws and instructions of the Lord remain normative – but not all of them remain literally normative today – they remain ethically instructive, but not necessarily literally applied. This, certainly is by the covenant Lord’s design. Laws regarding the agricultural restrictions, years of release, sacrifice, and ritual purity are not literally normative today – neither in Israel or in the nations (where they never were applied). Yet, they remain the normative standard according to the Word of the Lord, which is forever settled (Ps. 119:89; cf. Jn. 17:17). The nuance of normative and literally normative applicability of commandments is often overlooked in the faith community – due in part to a wrong application of fulfillment theology.
To add to this confusion, the apostle Paul tells us in Romans 10:4, “For Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Messiah is the Τέλος (telos), the teleological purpose, end, or goal of the Law, as the Torah was to lead us to recognize our need for reconciliation by the Lamb and the prophet who was to come (Gen. 22:8; Deut. 18:15).
To read this, one would think that Paul had a very negative view of the Torah indeed – the same Torah he called “holy, right and good.” Yet, Paul knew that the Torah, as given through Moses, was to be a teacher of the righteous standard, the normative standard, of the Lord – not the goal itself. The Torah taught a newly liberated people proper moral, ethical, spiritual, religious, social, governmental and interpersonal behavior – but it also revealed to us the impossibility of un-regenerated man living by it (I Tim. 1:8-10) – resulting from a lack in man, not the Torah itself.
In this we find our need for a Savior.
Unfortunately, many believers have an unnecessarily negative opinion of the Law: believing that through Messiah there is unrestricted freedom (Gal. 5:13). Some are of the opinion that in order to be free we must be free of law, this is both illogical and unlivable. The United States of America is considered the freest society in the world – but it has more laws on the books than any other nation in the world. The root of this problem is that the Greek word translated law, νόμος (nomos), is speaking in terms of civil law – not instruction. The Hebraic understanding of Torah is: loving instruction that helps us reach the mark (Ro. 10:4) – while sin is to be off the mark – both being references to archery.
When Yeshua said “I did not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill,” His immediate audience understood His language; consequently, they were able to clearly hear His message. So what do these two words, destroy and fulfill, mean in ancient Jewish thought?
Destroy – to interpret a text incorrectly, thereby destroying its underlying meaning.
Fulfill – to interpret a text correctly, thereby making the underlying meaning evident.
Messiah Yeshua gave the fullness of meaning of the instruction of God (Torah), sitting upon a mount, much like Sinai (Matt. 5:1-2). His Sermon sets the stage for many corrective lessons on living and applying the Torah to life that we will read in the Gospel record – correcting traditions and customs that had become burdensome (Matt. 23:4), in doing so, leading people back to the heart of the Lord’s revelation. He expects His followers to live by the normative behavior it prescribes as possible and applicable (Jn. 14:15), not in rigid, legalistic observance, but in Spirit and in truth. He underscores this by expressing the importance of teaching the Torah and the Prophets, and bringing their ethical and moral meaning into our lives, and the lives of those being discipled (Matt. 5:18-19; 28:18-20).
That being said, and here is my caveat – Yeshua warns about becoming self-righteously fixated, by telling us that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees (Matt. 5:20). The scribes and the Pharisees kept the Torah, by way of the traditions of the elders, meticulously; a standard that seemed impossible to reach for the average Jew. Yet, Yeshua will later explain that some Pharisees left the most important matters of faith undone (Matt. 23:23). Righteousness is not measured by outward appearances, but by faith in the Lord and the fruit it produces (Matt. 7:18-20).
The standard of faith is set in Genesis 15:6 (covenant of faith) – apart from the Sinai revelation (covenant of discipleship) – Abraham believed the Lord and it was accounted to him for righteousness. This caused the author of Hebrews to explain, “Without faith it is impossible to please Him (the Lord), for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). Therefore, we must be faith-ing (faith is a verb not a noun in the original), and when we believe the Lord through Messiah Yeshua, our righteousness will exceed the apparent righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because we will fulfill – rightly interpret and apply – the command given to us by Him: to, “love your neighbor as yourself…love the strangers as yourself…love your enemy,” found in the Torah and the Renewed Covenant.
Messiah Yeshua has not destroyed the Law and the Prophets, He fulfilled them by providing proper understanding and application, so that through faith in Him we might be able to live faithfully. Finally, after correcting misapplication and wrong thinking regarding the Law and the Prophets, which is as important today as it was then, He brings His message to a conclusion on this high peak, “Therefore, do unto others, as you would have them do unto you. For this is the Law and the Prophets.” Right application of the Word He both affirmed and fulfilled for us (Matt. 5:17).
Now, we go and do likewise.
Shalom. Be well.